Tonawanda News

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November 12, 2012

BOOK NOOK: They were working on the railroad

(Continued)

Tonawanda News — It helps that Starr is not a professional historian but an enthusiast with a financial background. While those may not be ideal credentials for an author of history, it makes the book readable and uncomplicated, and this reviewer considers that an asset.

Jay Gould is here, as is Cornelius Vanderbilt, Erastus Corning, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, guys with steamboats on the Hudson River whose livelihoods were undercut by price wars with the railroaders and no lack of other scheming, manipulative people.

It was a heady time, watching pompous millionaires lose major chunks of net worth the day after a competitor bought or sold a block of undervalued or overvalued stock. These were men who ruined their business competitors, then awaited the revenge, a Wild West atmosphere in the offices of Albany and Buffalo and a Mad Max vibe in the strike-ridden rail yards once the working people woke up to the available riches.

The book handles it all admirably. In a number of places I would have preferred more detail, but that is available elsewhere. I also noted a distinct lack of humor. There are few anecdotes and little irony, but the story itself is surreal in its scope — the way the railroad business did business set the tone for federal and state legislation proscribing business practices in general — and any laughter in the book comes from the audacity of the connivers running the rails.

As such, it’s a splendid book, the gateway to understanding the local version of what it took to unite the United States by rail. Buffalo is prominent, as is Attica, Dunkirk, Rochester and everywhere else freight and passengers needed to be collected or unloaded. It also offers the reasons behind government regulation, its necessity and its implementation. The roots of left-versus-right in America are here, and while Starr’s book is intended to scratch the surface and no more, it’s an entertaining and informative introduction to one of this country’s more compelling topics.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

• WHAT: "Railroad Wars of New York State" • BY: Timothy Starr • GRADE: B

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

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